The man (Robbie Amell) wakes up at 6:16 a.m. Lying next to him in bed is a beautiful woman (Rachael Taylor, of Jessica Jones and the first Transformers movie) with a futuristic, holographic tattoo on her arm. Before he can fully make sense of his surroundings, the door bursts open, and masked assailants enter the room. They grab him and drag him across the floor on his back; he is able to grab a corner of the wall and get out of their grasp, running away… and then everything fades out.
The alarm rings. It’s 6:16 a.m. again. The men break in again. This time, he lets them take him. The woman is an ex who resurfaced after a long absence. The world is a dark future, one in which merely having apples in your possession is a rarity. And their is a war in progress between an all powerful company and an equally violent resistance.
The man dies again. And wakes up promptly at 6:16 another time, with a bit more knowledge. As a Tom Cruise movie from a couple years ago put it: live, die, repeat. But what does the ARQ machine—presumably named for the instant connotation it will conjure in the minds of Iron Man fans—have to do with everything?
So often in the entertainment business, we hear about a director being hired for a big project on the basis of some short they did, and it’s usually one that dazzles because of the visual effects they conjure on their home computer. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if studios were to hire on the basis of narrative skills, writer-director Tony Elliott, a former story editor on Orphan Black, should be the next golden child, as ARQ hits the story ground running and never lets up. With a run-time of 88 minutes, it never outstays its welcome and always has you hooked. And while its principal bad guy, a bearded thug named Sonny (Shaun Benson, Gangland Undercover) is suitably threatening, he is also banal in a way that real evil is, but that we rarely see in fiction.
Though we initially see things from the point of view of Amell’s Renton, the Groundhog Day-like understanding of the situation gradually spreads to more characters than one, which in turn allows Elliott to follow other perspectives and reveal more and more of what we’ve already scene from differing points of view. This conceit also increases tension, because it makes clear that the more we loop, the closer we’ll get to the bad guys being aware of what has come before as well. Yeah, maybe our heroes are bound to survive when the clock restarts, but unlike Bill Murray, they need to learn fast, or events will be worse and worse for them every time.
Aside from some digital landscapes during the final act, ARQ never requires more than the same basic interiors over and over, and is proof that a solid story can carry the viewer through limitations of budget if executed effectively. Amell proves he has what it takes to be a leading man regardless of his natural advantage in the looks department, while Taylor takes what initially feels like a Kristen Stewart impersonation and runs with it.
It’s hard to say more about the narrative without spoiling to much, but the movie’s logic behind how a perpetual motion machine would work, while reality-bending, is an amusing new take on the notion. And while the film establishes a much larger expanded universe, I’ll be fine if we never see more of it. I’m just glad the filmmakers thought it out.
Best of all, you can see this for free if you have a Netflix account (it’s a Netflix original), and this is precisely how a big company can leverage its powers for artistic good. Come for Daredevil and Jessica Jones; stay to see what a Robbie Amell movie can be.
4.5 burritos for ARQ, and it’s only short of 5 because of a sequence late in the game where the lights go off and it’s really hard to tell what’s going on.
Luke Y. Thompson is a member of the LA Film Critics Association, and loves when Netflix gives him a run for his money. Tweet him.